New York, N.Y.—On Nov. 17 an overflow crowd packed a classroom at New York University (NYU) to participate in a teach-in on “Syria in the Context of the Arab Uprisings.” It was sponsored by the Middle East North Africa Solidarity Network-US and featured nine presentations, most of them via video or Skype from people involved in different aspects of the opposition to the Assad regime.
The first speaker, Razan Ghazzawi, a blogger from Syria, noted that when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad initially came to power many people looked on him as a reformer. But he quickly implemented neoliberal economic policies and by 2010, the year before the revolution began, 35.4% of the population was living under the poverty line. He disrupted the agricultural economy and the consequence was an influx of rural people into the cities. There was a severe drought and the villages were depopulated.
This, and the tone set by the Arab Spring, set the stage for the uprisings of 2011. Ghazzawi noted that young people, especially women, are the core of the resistance. She said that in the truly liberated zones, where neither Assad nor the jihadists are in control, there are grassroots Revolutionary Councils that include all segments of the population. She mentioned a number of urban-based anti-Assad resistance groups including the Syrian Revolution Youth Coalition and the Union of Free Students. She concluded her remarks saying, “Grassroots civil resistance is still alive.”
The second speaker, Leila Shrooms, spoke about the first days of the revolution. She said the protests in Damascus included Alawites as well as Sunnis. For many young people the revolution came as a great surprise but in the first wave of protest they felt “a moment of total freedom” and said that the beginnings of the revolution in Damascus were the greatest moments in their lives. She noted that the revolution is now confronting two counter-revolutionary powers: the Assad regime and the jihadists/Islamists.
Other speakers described the beginning of a new movement, the “Stop the Killing Campaign,” in territories controlled by Assad and in areas he does not control—both jihadist and no-jihadists areas. It is a non-violent protest movement whose slogan is “We want to build a nation for all Syrians.”
A constant theme was the danger to the revolution that the jihadists pose. Everyone who spoke of them described them as one of the main counter-revolutionary forces in Syria today. As one woman activist on the ground said, they are “smothering the revolution.” Other speakers noted that when Assad made a big deal of freeing political prisoners, the ones he released were almost all jihadists; that he uses the threat of a jihadist takeover to frighten people away from genuine revolutionary forces; and that the revolution has empowered women even in the more conservative regions of the countryside.
The conclusion was best summed up by a speaker who said, “The revolution is tragically alone.” Whether that will continue depends on the international Left building a mass movement against Assad, the defeat of the jihadists and all the imperialist powers who are waging war on the authentic Syrian revolutionary movement, and most of all, on the Syrian people who are fighting for freedom, social justice, equality and dignity. International solidarity is the key. Conferences like this one, although sponsored by a certain political ideology (Trotskyism) have the potential to forge an alternative to the shortsighted forces of the Left that continue to defend Assad.